Movies and the World as an Arena of Violent Domination and Global Looting
The classic Warner Brothers swashbuckler, The Sea Hawk, from 1940, within its romantic adventures and intricate swordfights (perhaps comparable to the car chases of later movies) is a partly historical, partly fictional version of a world built on imperial struggles and ransacking and despoiling. The hegemonic power in the West (and perhaps worldwide) is Spain. Phillip II the king-emperor wants to own and dominate and rule the whole world. In 1588, his Spanish Armada loses to England. (The British of course want to compare this to the Battle of Britain against the German Luftwaffe.)
The Spanish ambassador departs for England to escort his niece to Queen Elizabeth’s court, but in a spectacular sea battle, the Spanish galley is soundly damaged, boarded, raided and sunk by a group of pirates led by Captain Geoffrey Thorpe, a Sir Walter Raleigh stand-in played by Erroll Flynn. Thorpe rescues the galley slaves — they row the boat — and spares the crew, taking them aboard and delivering them to England. The jewels and other bounty (or a portion thereof) are a gift to the Queen.
His crew is part of a noble privateer coalition — the Sea Hawks — who justify their piracy as reclamation of English goods (and enslaved sailors) from the Spanish behemoth. The political fallout from Thorpe’s abduction of the ambassador forces Elizabeth to outlaw the Sea Hawks, including an official denial (and private approval) of his mission to Panama to steal a shipment of Aztec gold.
John Hawkins, the son of a merchant, was born in Plymouth in 1532. He became a sea captain and in 1562 became the first Englishman to start capturing people in Sierra Leone and selling them as slaves to Spanish settlers in the Caribbean. (Notice that selling slaves does not discriminate against Spaniards even with Phillip II threatening England. Business is business.)
A key scene between the Spanish aristocratic beauty and Captain Thorpe:
Doña María Álvarez de Córdoba: “I’m not in the habit of conversing with thieves. I thought I made that quite clear, Captain Thorpe.”
Captain Geoffrey Thorpe: “Why, yes, all except your definition. Tell me, is a thief an Englishman who steals?”
Doña María Álvarez de Córdoba: “It’s anybody who steals… whether it’s piracy or robbing women.”
Captain Geoffrey Thorpe: “Oh, I see. I’ve been admiring some of the jewels we found in your chest… particularly the wrought gold. It’s Aztec, isn’t it? I wonder just how those Indians were persuaded to part with it.”The Sea Hawk (1940)
“Think of it as our oil under their sand.”
This exploitative hierarchy and “world-system” is part of “the way of the world” and even a romantic adventure story like 1940’s The Sea Hawk gives you a Hollywoodized glimpse into its roots. Imperial struggles in the West spill over into colonization and ransacking and looting. History books one sees in high school are dishonest and in that sense uninformative or even disinformative.
The popular PBS travel series Rick Steves’ Europe unintentionally gives us a wonderful example of this notion of plunder and looting as a pillar of world history in the show on Venice. Rick Steves is talking about the various statues in Venice’s central St. Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco), and comments “I’d call the style ‘Early Ransack.’”